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Switzerland records ominous glacier melt rate

September 28, 2022

Melting ice is one of the key threats of climate change. This year, low snowfall and persistent heat waves caused a 6% loss of glaciers in the Alps, according to a new Swiss study.

Bare rocks which were buried for years are seen re-emerging as glaciers in the Swiss Alps are rapidly melting
Due to low snowfall in winter and persistent heat waves in summer, at least 3 cubic kilometers of ice were lost in the Swiss AlpsImage: Fischer/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

Switzerland has recorded the worst snow melt rate since monitoring began over a century ago, according to an academic study released Wednesday. 

The study, conducted by an expert group at the Swiss Academy of Sciences, found that at least 3 cubic kilometers of ice were lost in the Alps because of low snowfall in winter and persistent heat waves in summer.

This means that more than 6% of the glacier volume has been lost. Last month, another study revealed that since the early 1930s, at least 1,400 glaciers in Switzerland have lost more than half their total volume.

This year, the melt was so extreme that a bare rock that was buried for millennia resurfaced at one site. Dead bodies and even a plane that had gotten lost in the mountains decades ago were recovered.

Many small glaciers have entirely vanished.

How did this happen?

According to the study conducted by the Cryospheric Commission (CC) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, what led to the disastrous melt in the Alps was a "perfect storm."

The snow cover, which protects the glaciers from the sun, was exceptionally light this year. In March and June, the Alps faced large amounts of Saharan dust. The contaminated snow absorbed more solar energy and melted faster. The intense summer heat further damaged the ice.

The shock of the summer

Even though this situation was predicted to take place "somewhere in the future," Matthias Huss, head of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network (GLAMOS), said "realizing that the future is already right here, right now, this was maybe the most surprising or shocking experience of this summer."

He also added that "it's not possible to slow down the melting in the short term." Germany also lost one of its five glaciers this summer.

What is the impact of the glacier loss in the Alps?

According to a 2019 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the melting of ice and snow is one of the 10 key threats from climate change. The report also indicates that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, by 2100, the Alps will lose 80% of their current mass. 

Unexpected consequences of the melt

The heavy snow melt has also led to multiple unexpected situations in which hikers in the Alps are regularly discovering bodies that were encased in the snow for decades or even centuries.

Archaeologists are now suddenly able to access and study objects that were buried far too deep inside the snow.

Apart from this, the melting of a glacier between Italy and Switzerland has moved the border that ran along the watershed. This has forced the two countries into a lengthy diplomatic negotiation.

Across the Alps, the heavy snow melt has risked dislodging measuring poles that record important data. Scientists have been forced to do emergency repair work at many sites across the mountains.

ns/wd (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)